3 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Fellowship

Sep 03, 2020

By Jonathan Cantarero

A professor once told me that securing a fellowship is only half the battle—the other half is making it a meaningful experience.  In this article, I discuss a few pointers to consider before starting a fellowship, internship or volunteer position.  Following these tips will help you get the most out of your experience and set you up for success down the road. 

1.    Develop Relationships

Every mentor will tell you that you should develop relationships wherever you go, and there is a good reason for that.  Not only does it make your job more enjoyable knowing that you’re in the company of friends but, more importantly, it gives you a network of people you can turn to for help.  Whether you have a simple work-related question, seek career advice or just want to pick someone’s brain on a topic of mutual interest, having the right relationships will move you in the right direction. 

Relationship building during a fellowship begins with the interview.  I’ve written elsewhere on how to make a good first impression so you get started on the right foot.  Boiled down, your focus should be on being prepared and positive.  After that, there are three networking pointers you should follow during your placement:   

  • Be nice to everyone – Being nice really does go a long way.  Make an effort to introduce yourself to everyone you meet (assuming the employer doesn’t do that for you).  Remember to greet those same people throughout your placement, so that you become a recognizable presence.  For example, make time for hallway conversations or pop into someone’s office just to say hello.  All of this will leave a lasting impression on colleagues and supervisors. 
  • Ask questions – Asking questions is a harmless way to make others feel important and appreciated (e.g. What department do you work in?  What project are you working on?  Do you think you could help me with this?)  Questions like these develop a rapport with those around you, which will come in handy when you need to ask them for something that’s really important, such as a reference or recommendation letter. 
  • Think outside the box – This is probably the least obvious tip, but you should find tangible ways to stick out in a positive manner.  Employers remember summer interns who went out of their way to buy donuts for the office.  Co-workers will remember fellows who helped planned birthday parties or after-work get-togethers.  Believe it or not, many organizations keep a record of who engaged in these kind gestures or volunteers for similar activities since they speak volumes in terms of “character” and “personality.” 

2.    Ask Questions Early and Often 

One of the most valuable aspects of a fellowship is the fact that you’re surrounded by experts in your field of interest.  After completing four internships and two fellowships in my own field, I’ve realized that there are three types of questions I tend to ask the people I work with and work for; each of which has its own unique value:

  • Job-specific questions – The best thing you can do during your fellowship is excel at your job.  The best way to make sure you’re doing everything correctly is to ask questions.  All too often, fellows shy away from questions because they think it makes them either look incompetent or seem like a bother.  But this is rarely ever the case.  I, for example, love it when law interns ask me questions because it shows focus, initiative and diligence.  It also makes me feel good to know that I’m helping someone out. 
  • Career-specific questions – Being able to ask professionals how they got to where they are is an invaluable opportunity.  My first internship with a judge, for example, set me on the right path to a rewarding career in law.  Nearly ten years later, I still remember our discussions on career advice as well as strategies for success in law school and beyond.  Many fellowships, in turn, have “career paths” workshops as a part of their program while others simply encourage fellows to reach out to individual staff.   In either case, you should take advantage of these opportunities to learn from those who’ve been in your shoes and gotten to where you want to be. 
  • Lifestyle questions – This may seem like a random category, but the truth is that the people you work with are some of the best resources for local knowledge and general life advice.  This is especially true for those taking a fellowship in another state or country.  I’ve asked questions ranging from who’s the best chiropractor in town to which is the best hospital in which to have a baby.  Aside from developing a deeper, more personal relationship with colleagues, reaching out with oddball questions like these can make your experience easier if you’re not from the area. 

There are obviously limits to how much questioning you should be doing in a fellowship.  A good rule of thumb is to avoid one-sided conversations where you’re the only one talking.  Still, getting some important questions out early into your placement will give you a leg up towards a successful and meaningful experience. 

3.    Prepare others for an “Ask”

Without a doubt, a huge benefit of securing a fellowship—beyond the experience and employment prospects—is to grow your network of references and writers of letters of recommendation.  While you may be asked about your long-term goals in an interview, feel free to share your future plans with any other supervisors you meet.  This can be brought up in casual discussion or woven into a larger conversation about career advice.  

Make sure you remind your potential references of your plans—even if it’s years into the future—before your fellowship ends.  One helpful tip is to email a supervisor and thank them for their advice.  You then can use the same email chain when it’s time to make your “big ask.”  That way, this will help jog a supervisor’s memory about your career goals in a subtle way, and the fact that you two have discussed them together.  Of course, the stronger your relationship, the easier this process should be.  Another helpful tip to maintain contact with references after a fellowship ends is by connecting on professional sites like Linkedin.  I’ve often messaged with past employers, supervisors and colleagues and found those connections useful when I needed advice or guidance on a career decision. 

As you can see, a successful fellowship experience involves much more than just “doing the work.”  There are so many ways your placement can benefit you both in the short and long term.  I hope that using these tips as a guide will help you in that process.  

Jonathan Cantarero is an attorney based in New York City.  He is a former Graduate Fellow at the City University of New York School of Law (2013-16) and Schulte, Roth, and Zabel Fellow for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (2014-15).  Whenever he is not reading legal briefs or posting on ProFellow, Jonathan, who is also a seminary student, enjoys writing on the intersection of law and religion.  

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